On November 9, 2005 a Belgian woman in her late 30’s – Liliane Degauque –entered history as the first European woman to blow herself up in Iraq. Countless more from Europe, Asia or Africa have and will follow in Iraq and elsewhere, including in the heart of the Old continent.
If Liliane Degauque launched an attack against a military target, many followers are simply pulling the trigger amongst random civilians. Regardless of their age, gender or social class, some people decide to meet their creator taking along as many lives as possible. Are they criminals suffering from personality disorders as some suggest, or are they devout believers offering the ultimate sacrifice for their faith?
Self-sacrificing zealots: an enduring phenomenon across the ages
Most civilisations and religions have resorted to animal – and sometimes human – sacrifice as an expiatory tradition to appease or please God (-s). Many believers consciously inflict pain upon themselves to test their faith, to showcase the strength of their convictions or to reach a higher level of consciousness. For instance, the mortification of the flesh for Christians is at times translated into flagellation, in imitation of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Islam, Shiites remember the killing of imam Huseyn in Karbala during Ashura celebrations. Similarly, they beat themselves with chains and swords to express their guilt for this killing that marks the division between Shia and Sunni obedience.
These practices often track their roots in the Scriptures, such as when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Although Abraham accepted, God sent Gabriel who ordered Abraham not to do so. For Christians, the sacrificial lamb refers to Jesus’ sacrifice, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Equally, Muslims sacrifice mutton during Eid al-Adha. In essence, Isaac’s sacrifice epitomises the moment when faith and devotion was put to its ultimate test.
Suicide attacks in the animal world
The tactic of suicide is not unknown to the animal world. Ants and termites resort to autothysis (self-sacrifice or altruistic suicide) to repel attackers. In the extremely organised eusocial ant colony, obedient workers, soldiers and male drones are programmed to serve their queen and achieve their tasks without questioning. The Malaysian ant, more specifically, has developed a unique system to defend its colony. Ant warriors have a unique gland on which they can exert internal pressure until it explodes. When an enemy draws near, the ant runs towards him, triggers the internal explosion killing itself and releasing a poison that, in turn, neutralises the assailant.
The defence strategy of some soldier termites is similar. Shall an enemy try to enter the tunnels, termites will blow themselves up.
The main defence objective of those self-organised societies is to preserve their highly regulated society.
What we witness today is far from the termites’ defence mechanism, one that is designed to protect its group. The termites never sought to change others and impose their way of life. On the contrary, human suicide killers launch planned attacks that are carried out after infiltrating a refugee camp or a tourist spot. These suicide attacks do not happen to prevent an enemy from entering, but are carried out against unknown people who simply happen to be at a particular place at a particular moment. To justify such atrocities, the border between attack and defence is blurred. Attacks are presented as acts of defence for survival against the evil or the enemy whose mere existence is a threat that must be annihilated everywhere. For supporters of faith-based suicide attacks, the concept of evil-enemy expands to anyone who is different (aka “all others”).
Abraham’s sacrifice or the self-inflicted pain by believers is also very different and bears no resemblance to the suicide attacks targeting innocent people. For individual believers, mortification of their own flesh is a voluntary act. By no means, has it been imposed by armed groups commanders or clerics. God has two hands: one to forgive and one to punish. Those calling for suicide bombing only refer to the use of the latter. And polytheisms, considered now as a vestige of by-gone eras, were the first victims of religious radicalism. Today’s religious extremists call upon God’s wrath to turn their violence against all those who veered even slightly from strict observance of their credo. This explains why intra-ISIL punishment is regularly practised.
At the polar opposite, God’s first hand is to forgive, to understand and show compassion. This non-violent hand does not enjoy much popularity in radical rhetoric stemming from very binary views.
An inferno circle: from indoctrination to suicide attacks
To attract new potential radicals, recruiters invite them to believe that they are different and have been elected for a holy mission. Recruiters easily anticipate the negative reaction of the close friends of a person on the path of radicalisation. At an early stage, not to antagonise the young recruit from their circle, recruiters will drive a wedge between the candidates and their inner circle, by claiming the candidate has see the “light”, whilst others remain in the dark and lack the faith to access higher levels of religious consciousness. ISIL has gone one step further with its online recruitment form, asking whether candidates were ready to kill their own “infidel” relatives. Gradually, young recruits accept the fact that their commitment is in the best interest of a cause higher than family ties. The inferno circle starts when candidates for suicide bombing gradually change their perspective and adhere to revisionist interpretations of God’s command. Acts, such as killing themselves and fellow human beings, acquire alternative meaning and are now an acceptable means to achieve ones’ end. Suicide bombers, convinced about the importance, the meaning and the honour of their holy mission, embrace the (ir-) rationality of their act. Human laws and codes that condemn such acts are now part of the very world they must destroy. Therefore, any effort to deter a suicide bomber not to act, merely reinforces his/her conviction about the need to end the unholy world so that a better one will emerge. Suicide bombers see themselves as the frontrunners of the necessary apocalypse to overturn the chaos and the moral corruption dominating today’s world.
There are today little signs that faith-based suicide attacks are fading away, especially with fighters returning to Europe. Calls for suicide attacks, random stabbing, vehicle-borne attacks or derailing trains are increasing. There is a plethora of individual stories that tells of fast-track induction of recruits who made the turn from sinner to radical convert. What will happen with those kids who have been taught during ISIL-run mathematics classes that one suicide bomber plus one suicide bomber equals two mass casualties?
Regardless of who they are, suicide bombers leave behind thousands of people in pain in what resembles a modern-day Massacre of Innocents. RIP.
Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes
Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*
Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.
Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.
One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS.
Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.
In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp.
For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.
In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.
To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons.
*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
Global initiative launched to keep top sports events safe from terrorism
Representatives from international sporting federations and the private sector joined with ambassadors at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday to launch a global programme aimed at safeguarding major sporting events from terrorism-related threats.
The multi-year initiative looks to harness the positive values that sports promote to help crackdown on the spread of violent extremism, particularly among young people.
“Sport pushes people to be better, to aim higher and further. It promotes tolerance and gender equality. It strengthens communities, builds resilience and channels natural competitive instincts in a harmonious way”, said Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).
“Sport is a fundamental and true human value: a strong vaccine against any kind of criminal disease. We have a moral obligation to protect and promote sport.”
Sharing best practices and information
Despite being a unifying force, sporting events have been marred by deadly terrorist attacks.
The 1972 and 1996 Olympic Games, and, more recently, marathons in Sri Lanka and the United States, are some of the tragic examples.
The global programme will develop guidelines to enhance international cooperation, and public-private partnerships, to make sporting events safer for athletes and the public. The launch will be followed by a two-day expert meeting. Another meeting focusing on youth will be held in April.
Participants attending the launch included representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national Olympic committees, the international football association, FIFA, and private companies.
“Protecting major sporting events entails multilevel cooperation and coordination, as well as complex security and policy arrangements. including securing locations, cyber security, crisis planning and management, (and) strategic communications” said Mr. Voronkov.
“Through our joint programme, we will focus on the exchange of information and best practices, and on sharing resources and facilitating partnerships.”
It is essential to advance the consolidation of sport in development and peace strategies , according to the official at the helm of a UN platform which fosters intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation.
“Indeed, sports unites and heals,” Miguel Moratinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), told the gathering.
“It is also a universal language that both, fans and players understand. So, let’s all capitalize on the full potential of sport , with youth in its heart, as a driver for peace and social change .”
Key support from Qatar
Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a key supporter of the initiative, alongside China and the Republic of Korea.
The country and the UN counter-terrorism office signed an agreement last year to establish the world’s first hub for studying the behavioural roots of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.
Qatar is taking measures at the local and global level to ensure security at “the region’s first sporting mega event”, according to the Secretary-Genera of the World Cup preparatory committee.
“We are working hand-in-hand with our allies and partners around the world on exchanging best practice, information sharing, personnel sharing, and in assisting in maintaining the security of Qatar ahead of and during 2022”, Hassan al-Thawadi said in a video message.
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